WORLDS AT WAR
The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West
By Anthony Pagden
Random House. 625 pp. $35
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; C02
Traditional historians, like traditional Christmas revelers, love chestnuts, those succulent, oft-repeated stories that have long served to spice up the bland fare of Western history. Seldom have so many of these crusty old tales been related with such elegance and, at times, page-turning gusto as in "Worlds at War." But seldom, too, have such confections been put to such strongly ideological uses.
Anthony Pagden's classicist wife planted the seed of this
book after looking at a picture of Iranians at prayer. She noted that Persians
kneeling before a king -- not, mind you, before God -- had puzzled the ancient
Greeks, and she suggested to her husband that he write a book about "what
Herodotus calls the 'perpetual enmity' between Europe and
The "perpetual enmity" that Pagden describes here is his own triumphalist construction of European ideology. His lively tour through strife-torn centuries lavishes coverage on Alexander the Great crushing Persians, Romans conquering Egyptians and Syrians, Charles Martel stopping Muslims at Tours, storybook episodes from the Crusades and the Christian reconquest of Spain, two heroic defenses of Ottoman-besieged Vienna, Napoleon invading Egypt and Bush raining "shock and awe" upon Iraq. That's a lot for one book, but Pagden's tactic of giving as little voice as possible to the Eastern foes of these Western paladins makes the job easier. His history is not actually about two worlds at war. It is a history of Western self-glorification in confrontations with Eastern powers.
The East itself is only occasionally heard from, sometimes
through Pagden's own bizarre interpretations -- at one point he denies Islam's
claim to being monotheistic by calling it a version of dualistic Manichaeism --
but more often through disparaging comments mouthed by Western ideologues.
Faced with the inconvenient truth that Islamic science and philosophy
jump-started Europe's Renaissance and scientific revolution, for example, he
quotes the 19th-century French philosopher Ernest Renan: "[Islam is] the
heaviest burden that humanity has ever had to bear. . . . [The Muslim is]
absolutely closed to science, incapable of learning anything, or being open to
any new idea." If Abdus Salam,
Alas, Pagden is not above manipulating his story for
partisan ends. Osama bin Laden's terrorism, for example, is chronologically
misplaced, so as to imply that
Furthermore, many comments about Easterners, such as
"before [Napoleon's army] landed on the beaches at
Despite his credentials as a UCLA history professor, Pagden gets names, titles and terms wrong . . . but only those pertaining to Easterners. Neither he nor his publisher seems to have felt that the manuscript needed a read-through by someone knowledgeable in Arabic, Persian or Turkish. For example, on Page 284 "turgh" should be "tugh," and on Page 285 Silhadar Findikhh Mehmed Agha should be Silahdar Findikli Mehmed Agha.
Readers who found that Samuel Huntington's "The Clash
of Civilizations" only whetted their appetite for anti-Muslim, pro-Western
raw meat will find much to slaver over in "Worlds at War." But
Muslims and open-minded people who abhor the tide of Islamophobia that is
steadily rising in the
Near the book's close, Pagden asks the question: "Who says that tolerance, dialogue, and understanding are virtues? The answer is invariably: secular Westerners. The religion of the Prophet is not one of polite conversation." It is regrettable that Pagden himself, otherwise a proudly secular Westerner, makes no effort to practice the virtues he extols or even to engage in polite conversation.
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